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Belarus Company defies Europe’s ‘last dictator’

YanRusakevich Belarus Free Theatre’s producti“Minsk 2011: A Reply Kathy Acker” which will be presented Upstairs Theater Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. |

Yana Rusakevich in Belarus Free Theatre’s production of “Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker,” which will be presented in the Upstairs Theater at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. | Photo by Nikolai Khalezin

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♦ Jan. 30-Feb. 3

♦ Chicago Shakespeare Theatre Upstairs, 800 E. Grand
on Navy Pier

♦ Tickets, $20

♦ (312) 595-5600;

♦ Running time: 85 minutes without intermission

Updated: January 23, 2013 10:10PM

By now, most of the world has heard of Pussy Riot, the feminist performance art ensemble that riled Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church with its guerilla-style act in Moscow in 2012. Their theatrical protest landed several members of the group in prison, as well as on front pages worldwide.

Far less well known — yet every bit as embattled — is the Belarus Free Theatre, the fiercely independent-minded company founded in 2005 in the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people led by President Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as “the last dictator in Europe.”

The passion and outrage about the situation in Belarus is palpable when you speak to Natalia Kaliada, co-artistic director of the theater company with her husband, playwright and journalist Nikolai Khalezin. It also could be felt when the company first visited Chicago in 2011 amid an international political firestorm and staged its riveting show, “Being Harold Pinter.” These same passions are sure to infuse the troupe’s latest piece, “Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker,” running Jan. 30-Feb. 3 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre Upstairs.

The new show, adapted and directed by Uladzimir Shcherban (and performed in Russian and Belarusian with projected English subtitles) is an exploration of a repressive society through the lens of its twisted attitudes and sexual repression and exploitation. Its title refers to the capital of Belarus (Minsk), and to the work of Acker, the American experimental novelist, punk poet, playwright and essayist of the 1980s who dealt with notions of sex and pornography.

To understand the intensity of the work you must know the way the company, which survives by way of touring engagements and “the kindness of friends,” must operate.

Kaliada and her husband (and one actor in the troupe), now live in exile in London, along with their two daughters, 14 and 18. Living accommodations are always in flux. The rest of the actors, who have lost their jobs at Belarus’ state theaters, must essentially be smuggled out of Belarus to perform.

“Every time we have a tour it is a nightmare — a real detective story,” said Kaliada. “Each actor must be flown out on a different flight to get out, and we are never sure how it will end up. But this is the only way we can proceed with our lives — to do what we love, and continue our political campaign. And we are the lucky ones. Many of our friends and others are in jail under the most horrible conditions.”

Kaliada herself spent 20 hours in prison at one point, and as she put it, “that was enough to last until the end of my life.” Threats of rape and other forms of brutality are all part of the standard tactics used to intimidate and punish.

“Belarus has the dubious distinction of being among the top five countries for suicides each year,” she said. “And we can’t even talk about such things. It is all taboo. Everything goes through the censors, and self-censorship does the rest. Within the past couple of months alone there were five police raids on our underground ‘house performances’ in Minsk.”

“All totalitarian societies share certain qualities,” said Kaliada. “So we are now working on a new show, ‘Trash Cuisine,’ based on the stories of real people in some of the worst prisons in Southeast Asia and Africa.”

Meanwhile, she and her company dream of the time when they can operate like “a normal theater in Belarus — with paid tickets, advertising, and even a cafe and bar.”

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